I have to start out here by saying I am in no way an enemy of football.
I did quit a football team once...in 8th grade! I was good at cornerback—I was one of the fastest kids in my class, I could change direction on a dime, and, because I grew up with an full-sized trampoline in my back yard, I could jump. I felt like I could stick with anybody and then get up and knock the ball away. Nobody came down with a long ball on my side of the field.
Trouble was, I was just as good at seeing the ball harmlessly fall to the ground when playing offense. We were required to play both sides of the ball in middle school, and I've always been notably bad, for a male, at catching and throwing. In 6th grade, at the Bayside School, in a series of contests called the Presidential Physical Fitness Test, I was first in my class in the footraces—going away, nobody close—but dead last in the softball throw. I was as bad as a wide receiver as I was good as a cornerback.
But no hate for football. I'm a fan, I watch, I've been to games; I have relatives who play or have played; an old family friend played Varsity for an Ivy League team and was drafted by the Cowboys (he felt he'd been drafted to be a summer practice dummy, though, and turned them down). I have friends among TOP readers who are involved in NFL teams, and have nothing but respect for them, and of course I have many friends who are diehard fans, although many root for the wrong teams. And hey, I lived in Washington D.C. during the Gibbs years. And I'm from Wisconsin. 'Nuff said.
Nevertheless, I have to say I admire Chris Borland.
Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland in 2013 at Camp Randall
Stadium in Madison, Wisconsin. Photo by Mark Hoffman.
Who's Chris Borland? Well, he's a young guy who was was captain and MVP of his high school football team. He was a first-team All-American linebacker at Wisconsin and Defensive Player of the Year in college in 2013. Drafted in the third round by the San Francisco 49ers of the National Football League, he had a standout rookie year last year, getting his first career start in Week 7 and becoming the first rookie in 49ers history with two interceptions in one game. He led the team in tackles with 128.
And then, a couple of weeks ago, he retired from football.
At age 24.
The story is an interesting one, but not complicated. He took a hard hit in practice, felt he probably had sustained a mild concussion, and kept playing through it. Utterly normal; that's nothing that hasn't happened 10,000 times before in the National Football League.
But it set Chris to thinking. And then he started doing research.
Long story short, he surveyed the emerging findings about brain trauma and talked it over with many people, including flying to Madison and driving up to Fond du Lac to spend four hours with former Green Bay Packers linebacker George Koonce, author of Is There Life After Football? Surviving the NFL. Koonce said afterward, "one thing I can tell you, it was a well-thought-out decision. He did his due diligence and reached out to different resources around the country to come to a very difficult decision."
The people I most admire are those who come to difficult decisions and do what they think is right even when it goes against the conventional pressures. (Even apart from outside opinion, Borland earned more than $574,000 for his rookie season and would have been guaranteed more than $617,000 next year. Not to mention that he had to turn his back on his love of the game and his desire to excel.)
I remember hearing a story about a trucker on the radio in Maryland many years ago. Nobody special, just an ordinary slob cracking his nut driving a rig. He told of being forced, time after time, to engage in illegal backhauling—that's when a truck goes out with one load and instead of returning home empty, picks up another load to make the trip home pay. He said he was hauling a tanker of fresh milk on and outbound leg—and was forced to load up, illegally, on the homebound trip with formaldehyde, a carcinogenic toxin used for disinfectants and as embalming fluid for preserving dead animal tissue. Before loading up with fresh milk again, his tanker got no better cleaning than being sprayed down with a garden hose.
He blew the whistle. And was fired and blacklisted for his trouble.
It had caused him a lot of grief, including threats and calls in the night. But he was unrepentant. He saw something wrong going on, and he refused to be a part of it.
That's courage, in my view. People like that, big and small, who do what they think is right despite the cost to themselves deserve the term "hero."
In young adulthood I used to think that I ought to have played through my ineptitude at wide receiver in middle school so I could have played on the defense in high school. I used to watch Dave Shula, son of Don and a class or two behind me, play cornerback at Dartmouth and wonder quietly if I could have made it that far. Life is full of regrets.
Later I learned I had a then-undiagnosed back ailment called spondylolisthesis, and I revised my opinion—I thought then that maybe I'd dodged a potential problem. If I'd kept playing football, maybe I would have aggravated my back, which has been troublesome enough over the years as it is.
And now we're learning that that might not have been the half of it.
This really isn't the NFL's problem—if full grown adult men want to make the decision to play a dangerous game, that's their business. Borland himself refuses to indict the NFL. He says his only counsel to others is that they make informed decisions.
The real question for society to grapple with is whether it's a good idea for young kids—like myself in 7th grade—to play tackle football. Kids can't make informed decisions for themselves, and it's harder to go against conventional beliefs, community values, and parental and peer expectations when your own values and ethics aren't yet fully formed. They haven't acquired the toughness and the reserves of ethical strength that are required to make their own decisions and stand up for what they believe in.
They just got another good role model for that, however, in a former Badger, and now former 49er, by the name of Chris Borland.
"Open Mike" is the off-topic editorial opinion column of TOP. It appears only on Sundays but not every week.
Original contents copyright 2015 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
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Featured Comments from:
David: "As a former Badger myself and long-time resident of San Francisco and a kid who grew up watching the great Lombardi Teams of the '60s, this was very poignant. I'm thrilled every time I go into the Swan Oyster Depot in San Francisco because the first thing I see is a jersey on the wall from Number 5, Paul Hornung. So I have a lot of like and history of football. I never played anything more than sandlot football myself, so that probably was a good thing. My high school team was terrible and so didn't have many regrets.
"But all this new information raises a lot of questions about football and other sports with potential for head trauma. I think it was a brave decision and I hope Mr. Borland makes it big in some other endeavor."